Fashion, tech, family are clearly sometimes a recipe for success. Here’s what you missed on campus when powerhouse brother-sister pair Rebecca and Uri Minkoff were interviewed by Marketing’s Barbara Khan from the Baker Retailing Center last spring.
A Little Background
Rebecca Minkoff moved to NYC at age 18 to become a fashion designer. Gaining fame in 2001 with her version of the “I love New York” shirt, she started working side by side with brother and co-founder Uri Minkoff, who previously had been working for 10 years at a software company. The Minkoff brand, known for its trademark edgy handbags, its connectivity to customers, and its leadership at the intersection of fashion and technology, is recognized as a global luxury company with over 900 stores. Notable awards include Rebecca’s 2011 Breakthrough Designer Award from the Accessories Council.
So, let’s start off with you telling us about the early eras!
After a few years working in NYC, I realized designing was everything I wanted to do and be.
Reaching out to my brother Uri, I asked for his help in making my dream a reality, and he agreed to support me financially. Soon after launching, my ‘Morning After’ bag hit the market at just the right time, when people were seeking quality and luxury at a more affordable price. Timeless with an independent spirit, the original bag (with its $500 price point) was a huge initial success that helped me pave my path within the luxury industry.
And what a unique path you’ve carved! From the beginning, you’ve taken your own approach to defining fashion. How does you brand compare to others in the luxury space?
Well, in France and Italy especially, luxury is top down, meaning taste flows directly from the designer to the consumer. In other words, customers are told precisely what is fashionable and trendy every season. Meanwhile, we completely reject this framework. As a company, we decided to transform a one-way dialogue into a conversation.
What drives our company is the search for a fashion democracy – a transition away from traditional luxury standards to an attitude of, “Let’s ask, let’s answer, let’s engage with our customer,” It may sound simple, but with that mindset we were really breaking the mold … and getting a lot of heat for it. Despite criticism, we ended up creating an amazing dialogue of inspiration and daily feedback between us and our customers, a symbiotic relationship alive and well to this day.
As for some basic stats, our consumer base is 88% U.S. and 36% international. Organically growing for many years with 25-45% growth each year, we are now really professionalizing our team, and we currently have 5-6 vice presidents. In the last 20 years, we have become leaders in the fashion industry while remaining a small organization that can withstand external pressures. Since we still control the majority of the company, we have flexibility to make quick decisions and implement changes, a vital advantage in today’s retailing landscape.
How, then? What was the strategy for the marketing of your brand?
By bringing innovative crazy ideas. We are heavily involved in social media and we have a laser precise focus on the millennial as a consumer. In that regard, I [Rebecca] am the best friend and mentor to all our customers. With a ‘brand for firsts’, I have a simple motto; I want to be that person you come to for all those important moments in your life. I want to be the woman guide through all the major decisions you’ve made, the lasting experiences you’ve had. I am the face of the brand, a face that encourages woman empowerment.
Even going into the recession, we said, “If everyone else is leaving the battlefield, then let’s instead go out and be as loud as we can,” We went around to 35 different cities, spreading the brand name, and that helped us expand. We market by being visible, engaged, and always at the edge of something new. We quickly realized that the best use of our time was exciting the customer and getting her to know us.
Let’s talk more about being on that edge, particularly when it comes to technology. You guys are well known for the role technology plays in your brand. Can you please elaborate on that?
Yes – technology, social media, rising platforms, our brand is synonymous with that. We started off with our blog, and since then have always tried to use platforms in unique ways. We were the first brand to use Snapchat, with a behind-the-scenes look at Fashion Week (which we self-advertised using Instagram). This past Fashion Week, we partnered with GoPro to immerse customers more fully in the experience. By using two virtual reality cameras, Fashion Week was shot from 360 degrees, making a viewer feel as if he or she were actually backstage and in the front row. Rebecca is also leading the way in supporting women in tech, programming, and STEM by partnering with Intel and with Girls Who Code.
Currently, we’re transforming the whole Minkoff retail and shopping experience through technology as well. How, you ask? We started with the question: “What if we could bring the latest sexy tech, the Apple style of omni-channel stimulation, into a store? Stimulation beyond sight – to embrace all senses?” Our answer, after studying eBay and reaching out to marketing head Heli Sifer, was nothing less than building the store of the future.
We started with transforming the dressing room experience in all our stores. While browsing, customers are digitally alerted when a fitting room is available. They then enter to find interactive touchscreen mirrors. With them, customers can skim a look-book, order a coffee, request particular items, and change the lighting or mood of the room while trying on different outfits. They can look at Rebecca’s personal recommendations, and see and save all product information as well as their favorite items. All this leads to an efficient sped-up process as well as ‘dressing room therapy’ for the consumer. From within that fitting room, customers have an intimate touch relationship with the store associate. Lastly, on our end, we are able to collect data on our customers and their shopping preferences.
Our other tech branch is wearable tech, as humans are now constantly connected and in need of power. In exploring this space, they key here was creating something useful that customers would want to wear as jewelry, something with a beautiful functionality.
So far we’ve launched two products, a notification bracelet with Bluetooth text and call-receiving, and a charging bracelet that you can plug in as a charger on-the-go. We are also designing a cross-body bag with a charging case already installed, all with the idea of marketing to the professional but stylish modern woman.
Going back to your point about data from customers, what are you planning on doing with the data you collect?
Our collected data helps us streamline, maximize sales, and track trends. The initial review of our technology presented us with a couple big “AHAs!” For example, we quickly saw that 30% of people requested additional items based directly on matched recommendations. For example, every time a particular jacket went into the dressing room, we would sell its recommended matched pair of jeans.
With the e-fashion boom, how do you guys work to stay relevant? Furthermore, how do you compromise with preserving the old “brick and mortar” shopping experience?
This is a fascinating question. What we are seeing online is an unbelievable tech ability to explore relationships and patterns. The inefficiency with older companies now is infrastructure that slows things down. The key to staying relevant is being informed, and being quick to react. Having a super light technical footprint (cloud-based) leverages assets and quickly locates issues; these provide flexibility and insights.
To stay informed, we partner with blogs and A-level bloggers, looking for who’s rising, who’s new, and who has an international fan base. Another crucial component to our operations is a streamlined focus on 3-4 projects at a time that will really move the needle rather than having too broad a view. Finally, trusting your team and fostering collaboration is the key to success. It’s okay to mess up, but when you are in trouble, raise your hand. Rapid internal communication and admitting to needing help allows quick reaction times and the ability for our team members to back each other up.
However, shopping is always about the experience, and about being social. Thus, we are working to achieve a new kind of symmetry. To preserve the inherent customer interactive component of shopping, we host lots of public events that draw in crowds for a cause. Whether it’s making flower crowns for Festival Season or hosting a Mother’s Day monogramming event, we foster the kinds of experiences you can’t get online. Despite online and tech growth, the store-side of shopping is not going away anytime soon. As for whether our unique approach is evolutionary or revolutionary, we’ll let everyone else decide.
Finally, going back to your background, what is it like working as a brother-sister pair?
90% of the time we get along great. We’d be lying to you if we said we don’t fight, but that’s not abnormal. In fact, it can be good. In a healthy relationship there should be spirited debate, especially when, like this, it’s a very personal mission close to both of our hearts. For the most part, we agree on the path we want to take. Our pairing also works so well because of our complementary skill sets. When we started up, Uri was involved purely in the business side, with investment and hiring and supply decisions while I designed; however, now he has started to study the merchandising and design side, so the lines are starting to blur. Basically, we offer each other the best support. At the end of the day, we share the same blood, which lays down some basic rules: we have an inherent responsibility to find common ground, as we will be together for life.
-Charlotte de Vaulx